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Buckeyes Buckeye Archive Big Ten Preview - Leaders Division
Written by Dan Wismar

Dan Wismar

MonteeBall3In Part One of this year’s Big Ten preview I gave the edge to the Legends as the stronger overall of the two conference divisions.  The programs at the bottom of the Leaders Division appear weaker than the Legends’ second tier. And at the top, the Leaders’ two traditional marquee teams are competing under official sanction.

The prevailing wisdom is that Wisconsin might as well pack for Indianapolis because its two primary competitors for the title, Ohio State and Penn State, aren’t permitted to represent the Leaders Division in the postseason. Some good players and coaches at Illinois and Purdue will have something to say about that, while Indiana probably won’t., but Wisconsin is a team in transition and not without weaknesses.

Competing for media attention with the actual Leaders Division race in 2012 will be the debut of Urban Meyer as head coach at Ohio State. Meyer’s goal is to win the division and force the Leaders to send their second best team to the championship game.  And I think that’s exactly what he’s going to do.  Meyer brings his aggressive offensive attack to Columbus, and the Buckeyes are ridiculously talented on defense.  On paper OSU is the best team in the conference, and the expectation is they’ll be playing with…a certain attitude.

Penn State is a wild card in every way this fall. The recruiting sanctions haven’t yet hit, but it will be interesting to see how the Nittany Lions players respond on the field, not only to the passing of their icon, but to his eventual disgrace. The depletion of talent from their roster has begun, and it will be an uphill battle for new coach Bill O’Brien to replenish it. They may still have the third best team in the Leaders…but a more likely finish for Penn State is something like what happened to OSU a year ago, after their revered coach was fired under a cloud of controversy.

LeadersDiv logoIllinois under first-year coach Tim Beckman is in the best position to challenge Wisconsin for the trip to Indy from the eligible faction of the division, with Purdue having a puncher’s chance as well. Second-year Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson might have a few words of caution for Meyer, Beckman and O’Brien about the perils of that first year in the Big Ten. Wilson went 0-8 in the conference last year in the latest quest to make Hoosier football something other than what it has been since their last league title 45 years ago.

So I’ll pick the defending champion Badgers for a return trip to the Big Ten Championship…because I think they’re the second best team in the Leaders Division.

(Rankings Code:  PS = Phil Steele's    Lindy = Lindy's CFB     Ath = Athlon's CFB


Ohio State_logo1) Ohio State - Coach: Urban Meyer (1st Yr) - 2011 Record: 6-7, 3-5

Big Ten Ranking: PS: B1GLeaders: T#1     Lindy:  B1G #3     Ath: B1GLeaders #2
National Ranking: PS: #11     Lindy:  #14    Ath: #6

Ohio State has a boatload of young talent, but unlike what you might expect of program in transition, this is a veteran team in many respects. Seven of the ten coaches are new to the OSU staff, but with few exceptions they are a seasoned group with strong ties to Ohio and to OSU. Sixteen starters return from 2011, including both kicking specialists, and in guys like John Simon, Jordan Hall and Zach Boren among others, the team has a strong leadership core.

Equally important is the confidence and the track record brought to Columbus by the new man in charge. Meyer has won at every step in his career, and his detractors in Columbus right now can meet in a phone booth. He has surrounded himself with an excellent staff, and while it is thin in places, he has great talent on the roster. And although expectations are sky-high, the pressure on Meyer is minimized by the penalty-shortened season he inherited. Think of it as a trial run for what could be a special 2013.

Simon2Offense:  Sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller steps right into an offense that fits him like a glove, and Meyer calls him the most dynamic player he‘s ever coached. The offensive line is solid if still a little thin, with only center Corey Linsley new to a starting role. Even with the injury to Jordan Hall, the Buckeyes are deep at running back with Carlos Hyde, Rod Smith and freshmen Bri’onte Dunn and Warren Ball. At receiver, look for Devin Smith, Philly Brown and a fully recovered Verlon Reed to stand out. Senior Jake Stoneburner is joined by two promising young tight ends to solidify a key unit for Meyer’s offense.

Defense: Senior all-conference tackle John Simon (pictured) is the on- and off-field leader for the OSU defense under co-coordinators Luke Fickell and Everett Withers. But sharing top billing this time around is tackle Johnathan Hankins, who is on some preseason All-American teams. Overall, a strong returning cast of defensive linemen is being augmented with three 5-star freshmen and young talents like sophomores Steve Miller and Michael Bennett coming into their own. The linebacking corps has Etienne Sabino and Ryan Shazier returning on the outside, and sophomore Curtis Grant is getting a shot at MLB to live up to his recruiting ranking.  The secondary returns intact from 2011, with big things expected of cornerback Bradley Roby and safety C.J. Barnett.

Schedule: Meyer’s Buckeyes will have at least two good tests in non-conference play, facing Central Florida and California, and then the Big Ten opener is at Michigan State. That early clash in East Lansing and a November date in Madison against the Badgers might be the only games this year in which Ohio State will be an underdog. - Ohio State Roster - Ohio State Schedule -


wisconsin logo2) Wisconsin - Coach: Bret Bielema (7th Yr)  - 2011 Record: 11-3, 7-2

Big Ten Ranking: PS: B1GLeaders: T#1     Lindy:  B1G #4     Ath: B1GLeaders #2
National Ranking: PS: # 9     Lindy:  #17     Ath: #17

The defending conference champion Badgers lost QB Russell Wilson and the majority of Bielema’s assistant coaches, including offensive coordinator and play-caller Paul Chryst, who takes over as head man at Pitt this year. Wisconsin will have to underachieve, by recent Bielema standards, in order to miss out on going back to Indy to defend their title. Montee Ball and James White are still a formidable pair of backs, but they are replacing 13 starters overall, including both kickers, and have plenty of question marks on both sides of the ball.

Borland1Offense: Bielema has once again exploited an obscure NCAA rule allowing him to accept a transfer student as his new starting quarterback without the player having to sit out a season. Danny O’Brien was ACC Freshman of the Year in 2010 at Maryland, and he’ll have two years of eligibility remaining in Madison. Ball (pictured at top) is a legitimate Heisman contender as the season begins, but WR Jared Abrederis and tight end Jacob Pedersen are the only experienced receivers coming back. Wisconsin cranks out offensive linemen like Nabisco does shredded wheat, but in 2012 they’ll be replacing 60% of the line that got Ball to New York for the Heisman show last season, which included all-Americans Peter Konz and Kevin Zeitler, and all-Big Ten tackle Josh Oglesby.

: The Badgers were 3rd in the Big Ten in total defense in 2011, but at times they gave up points in bunches. MSU averaged 38 ppg in splitting two contests with them, and a struggling OSU offense put up 33 ...all before Oregon racked up 45 points and 621 yards against them in the Rose Bowl. The Badgers need to get some pass rush and hope to do it with David Gilbert and Brandan Kelly, two talented DE’s trying to come back from injuries. They have a. two-man tackling machine at linebacker in Mike Taylor and Chris Borland (pictured), a pair that ranked #1 and #2 in the conference in total tackles a year ago. The secondary will feature two new starters to go with CB Marcus Cromartie and safety Shelton Johnson.

Schedule: Wisconsin’s slate shapes up pretty nicely for them, with a road game at Oregon State their only non-con opponent from a BCS conference. They do have to travel to Nebraska and Penn State, but get MSU and OSU at home, and avoid Michigan altogether.
Wisconsin Roster - Wisconsin Schedule -


Illinois logo3) Illinois  - Coach: Tim Beckman (1st Yr)  - 2011 Record 7-6, 2-6

Big Ten Ranking: PS: B1GLeaders: #3     Lindy:  B1G #10     Ath: B1GLeaders #4
National Ranking: PS: (not in Top 50)     Lindy:  #62     Ath: #52

It says something about the depth of the Leaders Division that I’m projecting as the 3rd best team a program that beat only winless Indiana in the division a year ago, and dropped their last six Big Ten games in a row. I may be expecting too much too soon from new coach Tim Beckman, but he does have 14 returning starters, including elusive quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase.

I’ve been unable to find any other college team to have gone 6-0 to begin a regular season and 0-6 to end it, the Illini’s dubious accomplishment of 2011. The result was Ron Zook’s ouster as head coach, and the opportunity for Beckman, a former Jim Tressel assistant at OSU, to join the Big Ten coaching fraternity.

Scheelhaase2Offense: Scheelhaase (pictured) completed 63.2% of his throws a year ago, but he may be a better runner than passer, and time will tell if he can thrive in Beckman’s spread offense. Top receiver A.J. Jenkins is gone, and juniors Darius Millines and Spencer Harris will be counted on to take up the slack. Sophomore tailback Donovan Young will lead the ground attack, and returning tight end Jon Davis had 22 grabs last season. Filling two vacancies on the offensive line is a concern, as is the transition to a new system.

Defense: Beckman had a good run at Toledo, but his teams were not known for their defense (the Rockets scored 60 points in one 2011 game…and lost). Former Cincinnati coordinator Tim Banks will try to take seven returning starters and make up for the loss of Whitney Mercilus to slow down Big Ten offenses in 2012. Jonathan Brown (108 tackles, 6 sacks, 13.5 TFL) is the top returning performer, and he’ll move from the outside to the middle linebacker spot this year. DE Michael Buchanan and DT Akeem Spence anchor the line, and the secondary returns three starters.

Schedule: This year’s slate is front-loaded for the Illini, hosting Penn State, and then back to back road games at Wisconsin and Michigan to begin October. They avoid MSU and Nebraska out of the Legends though, and only a trip to Columbus breaks up a fairly soft second half (IU, MN, Purdue, @NW) - Illinois Roster - Illinois Schedule -


Penn State logo4) Penn State  -  Coach: Bill O’Brien (1st Yr)  -  2011 Record: 9-4, 6-2

Big Ten Ranking: PS: B1GLeaders: #5     Lindy:  B1G #6    Ath: B1GLeaders #3
National Ranking: PS: (not in Top 50)    Lindy:  #27     Ath: #44

The Nittany Lions nose out Purdue for the fourth spot in the division based on tradition alone. Despite being 6-2 in the conference a year ago, they had one of the worst offenses in the league…and they’ve lost their primary weapon, running back Silas Redd (1,241 yds, 7 TD, 5.1 ypc) who transferred to USC.  No one envies Bill O’Brien the task of picking up the pieces of an emotionally shattered program, and if he can come out of this season with a winning record, it will be a remarkable achievement.

Hodges PennState2Offense: In addition to losing Redd, the Nittany Lion offense will also be without Derek Moye (3rd all time at PSU in receptions). The Lions threw just 10 TD passes all last year, against 12 interceptions, and Matt McGloin (1,571 yds, 54.1%, 8 TD, 5 INT) who finished 2011 behind center, is the presumed starter this fall. Just one offensive line starter returns, center Matt Stankiewitch, and WR Justin Brown (35 rec, 517 yds, 2 TD) is the top receiver coming back. Maybe O’Brien will bring along some  offensive magic from the New England Patriots, but for now it’s hard to see how this group is going to score points consistently.

Defense: Tackle Jordan Hill and DE Sean Stanley are both capable of earning all-conference honors on the defensive line, and in Gerald Hodges (pictured) (106 tackles, 4.5 sacks) and Michael Mauti, the Lions have  a solid pair of linebackers. The secondary is a major concern, however, as all four 2011 starters are gone, and there’s bound to be a drop off in performance in that unit.

Schedule: A year ago, opening non-conference games vs. Ohio U. and at Virginia wouldn’t have been a cause for concern…now, who knows? PSU avoids both Michigan teams from the Legends, and they’ll host both OSU and Wisconsin, so the schedule could be tougher. Roadies at Illinois, Iowa, Purdue and Nebraska.   - Penn State Roster - Penn State Schedule -


Purdue logo5) Purdue -  Coach: Danny Hope  (3rd Yr)  -  2011 Record: 7-6, 4-4

Big Ten Ranking: PS: B1GLeaders: #4    Lindy:  B1G #8     Ath: B1GLeaders #5
National Ranking: PS: (not in Top 50)     Lindy:  #42     Ath: #53

Coach Hope’s Boilermakers finished with a winning record and a bowl victory in 2011, but appearances can be deceiving. Before toppling Western Michigan 37-32 in the Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl, the Boilermakers won four conference games, none of them over a team with a winning Big Ten record. They got hammered by Notre Dame, Michigan and Wisconsin by a combined 136-41 score, and beat Ohio State on a missed extra point. And they didn’t play Michigan State or Nebraska. Life is easier in the Leaders.

ShortPurdue2Offense: Caleb Tarbush (1,905 yds, 13 TD, 6 INT) figures to be the starter at QB, although Robert Marve and Rob Henry also have experience under center. Ralph Bolden (674 yds) and Akeem Shavers (519 yds) combined for almost 1,200 rushing yards a year ago, but Bolden had knee surgery after the bowl game and his full recovery is still in question. The Boilers have two capable wide receivers in Antavian Edison and O.J. Ross, although both have had off-field problems to deal with. The offensive line is a concern as injuries and graduation losses will force them to put it together in a hurry this fall.

Defense: The Boilermakers have a couple of consensus all-Big Ten players on their defense this year in tackle Kawann Short (pictured) and cornerback Ricardo Allen. Two of the top three tacklers from a year ago return at linebacker, with Dwayne Beckford (91 tackles) and Will Lucas (82 tackles) looking to repeat those numbers behind an experienced defensive line. This defense looks to be the strength of the 2012 Purdue team, and new coordinator Tim Tibesar will have to keep them in games until the offense comes together.  

Schedule: Only the September trip to South Bend looks to spoil an easy non-conference slate, but the  Big Ten schedule starts out brutally for the Boilers with Michigan, Wisconsin and @Ohio State to begin October. Again this year they avoid MSU and Nebraska, but it may take an upset or two to achieve a winning conference mark.  Purdue Roster - Purdue Schedule -


indiana-logo6) Indiana  -  Coach: Kevin Wilson (2nd Yr)  -  2011 Record: 1-11, 0-8

Big Ten Ranking: PS: B1GLeaders:#6    Lindy: B1G #12    Ath: B1GLeaders #6
National Ranking: PS: (not in Top 50)    Lindy:  #87    Ath: #89

The Hoosiers have 15 starters coming back for 2012, although I’ll leave it to you to decide if that’s good news or bad for a team coming off a 1-11 campaign. Wilson has brought in a number of junior college transfers to add some instant firepower to his efforts to turn things around quickly in Bloomington. They  have a chance to move up a notch or two in this division, but all three teams immediately above them in this Leaders ranking will get to host the Hoosiers in 2012.

RobersonIndiana2Offense: Tre Roberson made a positive impression as a true freshman dual-threat quarterback last year, starting the last five games and passing for 937 yards and rushing for 426. But Wilson brought in strong-armed JC transfer Cameron Coffman who looked good in the spring and could unseat Roberson in September, as could touted freshman Nate Sudfeld. Big back Stephen Houston had a solid season (802 yds, 8 TD) a year ago, but there will be lots of competition at RB, with D’Angelo Roberts and transfer Isaiah Roundtree pushing for time. The receivers look solid too, with Kofi Hughes (35 rec, 536 yds, 3 TD), Cody Latimer and Jamonne Chester providing size and athleticism. Speedy freshman slot Shane Wynn from Glenville should also see the field early.

Defense: Indiana is experienced up front, returning their entire defensive  line, anchored by tackles Larry Black and Adam Replogle. Returning MLB Chase Hoobler will probably be joined by JC transfers David Cooper and Jacarri Alexander on the outside as the starters. A very young secondary must improve over their 2011 performance. Safety Mark Murphy started as a freshman last year, and looks like he could develop into a good one.

Schedule: The Hoosiers miss out on Michigan and Nebraska, but as noted above, their home games are against their toughest opponents (MSU, OSU, Wisc., Iowa) and the games they would have a decent chance to win are all on the road. Four wins would be a big step up  Indiana Roster - Indiana Schedule


2011 Big Ten Statistics

If you missed it, here’s part one of the Big Ten Preview - Legends Division


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Dan’s OSU Links and Resources


More TCF coverage of OSU spring football:

Ten Young Bucks - 2012

Ten Breakout Buckeyes

Buckeye Leaves - 6/24 - Profiling new OSU coaches

Buckeye Leaves - 6/9 - Previewing OSU non-conference schedule

Buckeye Leaves 5/20 - Meyer measuring up to Tressel legacy

Buckeye Leaves - 5/6 - CFB Playoffs, Schlichter

Meyer's Buckeyes Take Off - Spring Game recap

Buckeyes on Fast Forward - 4/12

Transforming the Buckeyes - 3/27


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